Europeans Concerned About Nuclear Plant Safety
By Indira Srivastava
BRUSSELS (IDN) – Most Europeans believe that the risks related to nuclear energy are underestimated. They identify a lack of security against terrorist attacks on power plants and the disposal and management of radioactive waste as the major hazards.
This emerges from an extensive Eurobarometer survey spanning 26,470 European citizens across all 27 European Union member states, carried out in September and October 2009, the results of which have now been published by the European Commission in a 168-page document titled Europeans and Nuclear Safety.
59 percent of the Europeans surveyed felt that nuclear plants can be operated safely. But most believed that the risks related to nuclear energy are underestimated, with a lack of security against terrorist attacks on power plants and the disposal and management of radioactive waste identified as the major dangers.
Not surprisingly, then, the vast majority – 82 percent – agreed that it would be useful for nuclear waste management to be regulated at the European level which will likely please the European Commission, which directs Eurobarometer's work.
“The possibility of terrorist attacks on nuclear power plants (NPPs) tends to intimidate Europeans the most. The majority in every country with the exception of Spain considers this to be a major threat. Polish respondents in particular fear this possibility (89 percent),” notes Eurobarometer.
It goes on to say that “the borderless nature of international terrorism and the cross-border consequences of terrorist actions underline the observation that public opinion on this issue is not influenced by whether or not a country has NPPs”.
Also: “Considerably fewer Spanish respondents appear to be afraid of an attack on their nuclear power plants (46 percent). This could be however explained by a high level of non-responses (26 percent).”
Europeans are not convinced that radioactive materials are sufficiently protected against misuse. A comparative majority in 17 out of 27 countries (ranging from France to Ireland in the order of ranking) believes that there is a potential for misuse of nuclear materials. Greeks have the greatest fears (74 percent) followed by Danes (63 percent), Luxembourgers and Austrians (61 percent both).
In eight countries – from Hungary to the UK in the ranking order – the highest percentage of respondents think that measures to guard against the misuse of nuclear materials are satisfactory. There are NPPs in operation in all these countries.
In some countries, non-response rates are high which could imply that the concept of misuse is not always clear. This is the case for example in Portugal (32 percent) and Malta (31 percent). In Bulgaria and Romania the largest segment of the poll is unable to form an opinion on this topic (38 percent in both).
One chapter of the Eurobarometer survey examines the actual knowledge of Europeans on issues related to nuclear energy and the extent to which this appears to be linked to their opinions and attitudes. It finds out that “Europeans have an average level of knowledge of nuclear issues”.
The average number of correct responses to questions is slightly below 3 out of 5 (57 percent). It is worth noting however that in every country with the exception of Spain and Romania (where the average of non-responses is highest) the average number of correct answers is higher than the average number of incorrect responses or non-responses.
“Whether or not a country has NPPs seems to have a bearing on its citizens’ knowledge,” says Eurobarometer. The first ten countries with the highest averages of correct answers have nuclear power. Finns answer close to 4 out of 5 questions correctly (74 percent), followed closely by Germans and citizens of the Czech Republic (70 percent in both countries).
Spain (average correct answers 39 percent), Bulgaria (40 percent) and Romania (38 percent) are an exception to this pattern. In these countries, which all have NPPs, a large proportion of respondents are unable to answer questions. In Romania, the average of nonresponses reaches its highest level, 48 percent.
Furthermore the share of “don’t know” responses are on average higher in countries that do not have NPPs in operation. This holds true in particular for Cyprus (41 percent), Portugal (37 percent), Malta (33 percent) and Italy (30 percent).
“This observation reinforces the hypotheses that there is a link between personal experiences and knowledge. In this context it appears that people who have personal experiences of nuclear issues (i.e. those with NPPs in their country) also have a higher level of actual knowledge of the topic,” observes Eurobarometer.
Nevertheless, the majority of respondents recognised the value of nuclear energy as a means of decreasing dependence on energy imports, ensuring more stable and competitive energy prices, and helping to limit climate change. In fact, 17 percent of Europeans felt that nuclear's share of electricity generation should be increased (up from 14 percent in a similar poll from 2006), on top of the 39 percent (up from 34 percent) who felt that nuclear's current share should be maintained. Still, 34 percent felt that nuclear's share should be reduced (down from 39 percent in the 2006 poll).
The report provides detailed breakdowns both in terms of demographics and geography. However, the survey also found that most Europeans felt that they were not being given sufficient information about nuclear issues, particularly radioactive waste management and environmental monitoring procedures. And in every country, a comparative majority felt that schools did not offer enough information to children to give them a basic knowledge of energy and nuclear issues.
Mass media was found to be the main source of information on nuclear issues used by the survey's respondents, with television, at 72 percent, the far dominant source ahead of newspapers (40 percent) and the internet (27 percent).
However, scientists and national nuclear safety authorities and international organisations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were identified as the most trusted source of information on nuclear energy, particularly nuclear safety, ahead of journalists. Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) were less trusted than journalists to provide information.
Commenting on the survey, Santiago San Antonio, director general of European nuclear industry trade association Foratom, said the European nuclear industry was committed to bridging European citizens' nuclear knowledge gap.
"Experience shows that the more citizens know about nuclear energy, the more they are in favour of it," he said. Industry efforts included doing more to inform citizens on the existing solutions for the safe and efficient management of radioactive waste that are already being put into practice in a number of countries.
"What is clear from this survey is that public acceptance of nuclear energy is steadily increasing," he said.
European commissioner for energy Guenther Oettinger said the survey showed that people across Europe shared the same concerns, whether or not they were from countries with nuclear power. "We have to take these concerns seriously and make sure that radioactive waste is disposed safely, for our people and for our environment," he said.
As of March 21, 2010 there is a total of 195 nuclear power plant units with an installed electric net capacity of 169 GWe (gigawatt electrical) in operation in Europe and 16 units with 13,8 GWe were under construction in six countries.
In terms of electricity generated by nuclear energy in 2008 France holds the top position with a share of 76.2 percent followed by Lithuania with 72.9 percent, Slovakian Republic with 54.4 percent, Belgium with 53.8 percent and Sweden with 42 percent.(IDN-InDepthNews/05.05.2010)
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